Malcolm Cree CBE, the Chief Executive Officer of the Bar Council, highlights what the organisation has been able to achieve over the last two years since the start of the Covid pandemic.

I want to look back over the last 2 years, highlight our achievements and point towards the vital work we are planning and doing with the Bar. 

How the Bar Council responded to the Covid-19 crisis

On 9 March 2020, two weeks before the first lockdown, representatives from the Bar Council, Legal Practice Management Association (LPMA) and the Institute of Barristers' Clerks (IBC) held their first Covid-19 Working Group meeting. The group worked tirelessly; drafting and disseminating updates and guidance to the profession, hosting a six-part virtual Q&A series, organising numerous surveys of individual practitioners and chambers, and a dedicated Bar Council email account that has responded to over 850 enquiries from barristers and chambers.

We are extremely grateful to all the individuals and organisations who contributed to our  work over the past two years. We may not have won all the concessions we sought from Government during the Covid-19 pandemic but we certainly made them aware of the issues and won some important battles. For instance, winning ‘key worker’ status for barristers, pausing jury trials when it was clearly unsafe, key concessions on legal aid payments, fighting off ideas for trials with fewer or no jurors and the Covid Operating Hours. In 2020 there were more than 6,000 pieces of press coverage (up 300%) and our social media took off.

The Bar was profoundly affected by the pandemic, with two thirds of barristers reporting a negative impact on their working lives and wellbeing, and over a quarter experiencing financial hardship due to a lack of court work. The pandemic opened up new ways of working that were largely welcomed, our research shows that 60% of barristers in England and Wales want more remote working (where it meets the needs of clients) and 42% want more flexible working in future. We are now seeing considerable innovation around hybrid and flexible working although we remain concerned about the impact on pupils and junior tenants. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the profession displayed considerable resilience and now income has largely recovered to pre-covid levels. If we look at the largest practice areas: criminal law saw the greatest fall in incomes (some 23% in 2020 to 2021), while family and personal injury law saw smaller decreases. In commercial and financial law, overall earnings increased.

We know from our Young Bar survey that one of the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on newly qualified barristers was a dip in earnings, which has largely recovered now. A more lasting consequence has been the lack of opportunity to network with colleagues and become part of Bar culture. Overall, the Young Bar are still working very long hours but want a better working culture and work life balance. They also want more flexibility in their work, the ability to take time off for holidays and they support moves to eradicate bullying.  

What the Bar Council offers

As the pandemic hit, our Training and Events Team, worked quickly to convert training courses to an online format. In May 2020 we announced the launch of our online training portfolio and, in the two years since, we have successfully delivered 119 open courses and 126 bespoke courses for chambers.

Following the success of our Race Summit and the launch of our Race Report in 2021, we have expanded the training portfolio to include Race Awareness Training. Since its launch the Bar Council has already organised 22 Race Awareness Training courses for chambers and other groups at the Bar. We are also piloting a Distribution of Work training course, which is designed to complement our Monitoring of Work Distribution Toolkits – part one (sex) and part two (race). The pilot training course is sold out, but we have provisionally scheduled two more courses for later this year.

We are looking to further expand our training portfolio by launching a new static online training product for the Bar. This is dynamic online training, delivered without a live teaching element, and will provide the Bar with short, accessible, and affordable training courses on a range of topics that lend themselves to independent study. This should help barristers to meet their regulatory Continuing Professional Development (CPD) requirements.

In 2020 we had to consider how to proceed with our flagship events: the Pupillage Fair and Annual Conference, and we decided to run our first ever virtual fair and conference, and we organised a hybrid conference last year. The move to online and hybrid formats improved accessibility by allowing for greater attendance from outside London. The Pupillage Fair, which is the leading fair, attracted 1,500 students from across the world, making it the most accessible and largest event of its kind to date. We saw similar success in 2021 but, following the feedback received from both virtual fairs, we have decided to hold our next annual Pupillage Fair as a hybrid event that will take place on Saturday 15 October 2022. Bookings are now open.

The Pupillage Gateway closed for applicants in February. We processed 20,700 applications from 2,800 candidates, and advertised a total of 499 pupillages across 202 Authorised Education and Training Organisations (AETOs), 309 of which were from gateway sets. We intend to publish our second annual Pupillage Gateway Report this summer. An application process that is transparent and inclusive is key to attracting talented candidates from diverse backgrounds to the profession. The Pupillage Gateway facilitates this transparency, and it is encouraging to see the number of AETOs using the gateway increase by over 20% (to 122). We have been reviewing the options for the future of the gateway and are delighted to announce that we will be moving the site to an alternative provider and tracking system ahead of the opening of the 2022/23 recruitment timetable. We will be sharing more details soon and will set out the benefits to both AETOs and aspiring barristers. 

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, we are pleased that chambers are doing their utmost to prioritise support to pupils. In our most recent Pupils Survey, 90% of pupils said they were happy with their supervision, 65% spoke with their pupil supervisor at least once a day and 86% of pupils said they felt well supported by their chambers.

We have recently transformed the Direct Access Portal following extensive research into the needs of members of the public who are looking to find a barrister. We have also organised focus groups with members of the LPMA, IBC and public access practitioners. Moving forward, the portal will now feature a much-improved interface and we hope it will be the go-to destination for engaging the services of a barrister directly.

Cyber security is at the forefront of the Bar Council’s work priorities, both because of the attacks experienced by several chambers in the past year, and because of the malicious cyber-attack we have been dealing with. Apologies to anyone who has had difficulties in contacting the Bar Council. The experience has been tough, but we have done everything we can to respond quickly and effectively, and our IT experts have been carrying out vital work to identify and fix the problems that the cyber-attack caused.

After assessing the suitability of multiple cyber security specialists, we were pleased to announce a new partnership with Mitigo in January. The company were already working in partnership with different Law Societies and are well positioned to provide chambers with a trusted cyber security solution which will help them demonstrate their level of security to instructing solicitors and avoid business disruption from cybercrime.

In conjunction with the Law Society in England and Wales, we have launched a Cyber Security Questionnaire which is a vital tool to ensure chambers have taken all possible care to protect their data. This initiative aims to raise awareness of information security issues, including organisational security, and is not limited to chambers’ use of technology.

Last year we were able to launch a new Governance Research Project, aimed to investigate the current governance arrangements of chambers. There has been a lot of enthusiasm for the project already, and as part of the research the team met with 12 different chambers. Thank you to all the chambers who agreed to contribute to the project and shared copies of their constitutions, articles of association, and other confidential information. Our next steps will include publishing the research findings in a document designed to guide chambers (of all sizes) on the development, or remodelling, of their respective constitutions or articles of association. We are also considering whether to begin offering a complementary bespoke advice and support service.

I really hope all of the new and existing services offered by the Bar Council are of help and assistance to individuals and organisations across the Bar.

Building relationships through our public affairs and policy work

The way we operate and seek to influence decision-makers has come on in leaps and bounds. We now meet with Government representatives, departments, and agencies way beyond the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

We have a good relationship with the Treasury; we are able to explain our policy positions and highlight the value for money enshrined in our proposals. We also meet with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), Department for International Trade (DIT), the Home Office, No. 10’s Policy Unit and the Metropolitan Police. Our relatively new relationship with the Met Police has helped us to better understand the police view of the Criminal Justice System and enabled us to align our positions where appropriate. We have also developed relationships with think tanks, particularly the Institute for Government, with whom we now work closely.

Publicly funded legal work and the criminal legal aid review (CLAIR)

There are significant sustainability challenges with criminal legal aid, as the statistics show a trend of specialist self-employed criminal barristers diversifying their practices away from criminal work in response to poor remuneration and working conditions.

Whilst the Government’s intention to implement Sir Christopher Bellamy’s report recommendation of an injection of 15% into the fee scheme is welcome, he intended it to be implemented quickly. Despite pressure from us and the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), it looks like the increase, once approved later in the summer, will only apply to new cases, meaning new money will be very slow to flow. We fear that it will be too little too late and the ‘flight’ from criminal work will continue.

We are also working on civil and family law matters. We have campaigned for legal aid to be introduced for social welfare cases because we think it is at the centre of many civil law issues. Our main efforts to seek reform have been through our budget and spending review submissions and via conversations with ministers and Members of Parliament (MPs). There is now a 2-year pilot taking place for early legal advice in relation to housing, debt, and welfare benefits. This is a significant step forward.

We continue to work closely with the LPMA on the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda – with LPMA members playing a key role on the Bar Council’s Equality Diversity and Social Mobility Committee and its various panels and working groups. 

Our Race at the Bar report shows “that barristers from ethnic minority backgrounds, and especially Black and Asian women, face systemic obstacles to building and progressing a sustainable and rewarding career at the Bar”. This is across all stages of a barrister’s career, from pupillage to silk. So we are encouraging all sets to create action plans based on the Bar Council’s Action Plan Template and Target Setting Guidance. We are planning to report on progress later this year so please let us know what you have been doing.

The Bar Council’s Accelerator Programme is focussed on fair work distribution and we have launched a Women in Law Pledge. Alongside the Law Society and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx), we have created the pledge to help tackle the issue of gender inequality within the legal professions. In addition, we are currently developing practice management guidance, especially for the Young Bar.

We remain concerned that 3 in 10 barristers report that they have personally experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination at work. Women barristers are much more likely to experience inappropriate behaviour (43%) when compared to their male counterparts (17%). This number has increased in recent years and is clearly unacceptable.

We are planning more work that is aimed at fostering more inclusive workplace cultures and taking steps to tackle bullying and harassment. We already offer a confidential and anonymous online reporting tool called Talk to Spot that can be used to raise concerns or report instances of inappropriate behaviour.

We continue to focus on access to the Bar and promote practical initiatives such as AccessAble, an online app that can be used to find out if a specific location or venue is going to be accessible to disabled people.  

The Bar’s Sustainability Network now has 47 chamber members involved and is a network providing a range of services and support for chambers, Inns and others to help the transition to a more sustainable way of working, saving not just carbon emissions but costs. The network offers information, advice, practical guidance, and a Carbon Calculator that can measure emissions and help set reduction targets.

Our evidence-based focus and initiatives

We have transformed the way we work by using data and conducting research. We are now led by the facts and evidence. Be it our Barrister’s Working Lives report, Life at the Young Bar report, Pupils Survey report, Running on Empty - Civil Legal Aid report or everything that have been CLAIR-related, we now produce sophisticated and reliable research. It is there for the whole of the Bar and we need all of the Bar to work with us to help gather evidence to use to fight for better results for the profession and to improve access to justice.

Legal ethics and regulation

The Bar Council runs an excellent and valued Ethics Helpline. We respond to 4,500 to 5,000 ethical queries a year and the service is used by every kind of barrister – all practice areas, all years of Call.

The Bar Council remains concerned at the direction of travel of legal services regulation, both strategically and tactically. The Legal Services Board (LSB) is significantly over-reaching its remit. To produce a 10-year strategy entitled: Reshaping Legal Services (not legal services regulation) is extraordinary. Regulation is fundamental to how chambers operate and there is therefore a risk for everyone. No matter whether you agree with everything the Bar Standards Board (BSB) does, it is in all our interests to ensure that there is a strong, independent regulator for the Bar.   

Extending our global reach

For those with an interest in European affairs, post-Brexit we have taken steps to ensure that our voice is still heard, as a third nation. The Bar Council’s work in Brussels is connected to the European Bars and European Institutions so that the Bar of England and Wales still has a presence and a voice. This is vital from the perspective of European law reform which impacts on us, but also because it makes sense from a business perspective – many barristers still have significant European practices.

A Bar Council delegation has recently been to Brussels to meet with the UK Ambassador to the EU, members of the European Parliament, chairs of the Brussels Bars as well as English and Welsh barristers who are based in the city.

We have established relationships with Bars and jurisdictions around the world and we are constantly looking for new opportunities to secure international work for barristers. This work includes being instructed by overseas clients, appearing in foreign courts and being instructed by foreign clients in the UK. Our international work is not only for commercial and chancery barristers – there are also opportunities for criminal and family work, and we want to see those opportunities increasing.

In the last 15 years (since 2005) overseas income at the Bar has tripled to almost £400 million. Despite Brexit, the UK remains a leading legal centre. It is important that the Bar Council, along with our partners, continues to promote our legal services globally. 

Working with our colleagues at the Ukrainian Bar Association, we have so far been able to match 15 Ukrainians with barristers living in England and Wales. We have had more than 100 requests for assistance and around 200 barristers have offered support and accommodation. The process has been slow, but we continue to do what we can to help. As for procuring work for Ukrainian lawyers there have only been a small number of offers. Please encourage colleagues to put forward imaginative ideas and get involved.

Thank you

The past two years have been challenging but things are now getting back on track. We continue to work alongside chambers, the Inns and Specialist Bar Associations (SPAs) to make sure that our collective efforts are effective.

I am very proud of the work of the Bar Council and what we have been able to achieve. I look forward to working with you all on what we have planned for the coming years.

This is an edited version of a speech given to the Legal Practice Management Association Annual Conference on 12 May 2022.